Where Nature and Urbanism Meet

The Appalachian trail, spanning 2,190 miles and 14 states, is sprinkled with shelters, mountain peaks, road crossings, log books, stream crossings, and white trail blazes. But, one feature I did not expect this hiking trail to offer was a passenger train station. Indeed, about two hours north of NYC, weekend day-hikers from Brooklyn and experienced thru-hikers collide at the Appalachian Trail station on the Metro North Harlem line. 

Last year at my previous job doing solar development, while searching for fields prime for a solar array, I stumbled upon this very train station marked inconspicuously on google. My interest was piqued, for it’s not often that trains provide door to door service to the great outdoors. Especially in the US; this Appalachian Trail station seemed to me to be right out of Europe, for the train routes there certainly do provide service to just about every destination imaginable. Some quick research confirmed that the station in Pawling, NY was indeed in service, albeit only on the weekends. Two morning trains from Grand Central and three afternoon trains back to the city reflect a catering to day-hikers looking to explore the AT for a few miles.

So, after moving to New York, taking the train and exploring this trail was on my to-do list for the summer. On a beautiful early September morning, I trudged down Nostrand in my hiking boots and backpack – a pack which I last used in April in Death Valley. There’s something nostalgic about the beginning of an adventure – regardless of its length – and I remembered the trips I took when living in Boston; early morning departures from – and late night arrivals back to – sleepy Beacon Hill. Now, I was on my way to the subway to Grand Central (the A to the 4) to catch the 9:09am Harlem line train to Wassaic. I was excited to see “Appalachian Trail” on the departure board before boarding the Metro North train. The conductors – seeing my pack – were quick to ask my destination and direct me towards the front of the train “to make the connection at Southeast easier” (although this really seemed nonsensical after making the connection). The connecting train, which operates as a shuttle from Southeast to Wassaic on a two-hour interval daily, was a much older model and had just two cars. This section of the route is only one track wide (thus requiring the one-train shuttle service) and is a narrow, tree-lined corridor. Being on a train on a single tracked corridor is a surprisingly unusual experience, and it reminded me of the Polar Express, without all the snow. The Appalachian Trail stop came quickly and right on schedule, I think. This was the most minimal train station I had ever seen – a slightly raised platform maybe 6 feet by 15 feet in size and serving just one door of the train. A dozen or so hikers were also departing here, and there seemed to be an even mix of day hikers and overnight backpackers. Most headed southbound on the trail, but I was headed north to Wiley Shelter.

The hike was an easy 6 miles through fields and forest. Fall seemed to be coming early here; small groves of orange-leaf trees could be spotted on hillsides in the distance. Anticipating and then arriving at the shelter served up the same plate of emotions as when I was hiking the long trail – it seems that, regardless of the distance hiked that day or the number of days hiking, spotting the destination shelter through the trees and knowing that you would soon have no weight on your back and no boots on your feet, gives a feeling of near-euphoria. This shelter was well attended, in part because of the long weekend. Of note, there was one chatty through-hiker heading south and a group of five teenagers who had walked in from the nearby road with some beers and a youthful excitement for breaking the rules and enjoying some freedom from parents. Their attitude and naivety was mostly entertaining, besides them forcing me to move my bear bag hang from an optimal branch to use the fire pit below.

Despite just being on the trail for one night, I wrote an entry in the shelter journal. The last time I was on the trail was in New Hampshire on my pre-orientation trip before freshman year of college. And before that was the summer of 2017 Long Trail hike with my sister. But, there’s a similarity across the length of the trail, or at least the northeast portion, that made this hike feel familiar and made my Long Trail memories feel less distant.

The following morning, after a surprisingly comfortable sleep in my three person backpacking tent which had also been last used on this trail, I retraced my steps back to Pawling. The train schedule assumes hikers are headed from the city just for a day trip, so the first NYC-bound service at the AT station isn’t until 2:35pm. Thus, I walked a little farther to the Pawling station – two miles south – to catch the 12:38pm train. Having had an ample dose of nature, I headed back to the city, returning in time for my Sunday night bartending shift.